I'd thought that stricter border patrolling by the U.S., which made illegal crossings more dangerous, and better job opportunities in Mexico's growing economy might have dampened the urge for workers to take such a chancy and dangerous route to a better life.
That equation may be true at the macroeconomic level but clearly not among the poorest of the poor in the countryside around us. For these desperate people, too uneducated and unskilled to benefit from Mexico's improving economy, the only way to survive still is to head north where there is demand for their labor and well paying jobs.
As Félix describes it, the trip north is almost like going on a rough camping trip. Both Félix and his brother had gone to work near Dallas about five years ago, at a construction site building Walmart stores. (Even wonder how Walmart makes its billions of dollars in profits? Squeezing their employees with low wages and marginal or no benefits and using building contractors who hire cheap illegal labor from Mexico may be part of the answer.)
Félix came back after several months. I sense he was homesick. When we hired him five years ago I remember him asking if ours was going to be a permanent gig because otherwise he was ready to go back to Texas. We're grateful he decided to stay, and probably so is he.
According to Félix, smuggling workers to Texas is still a very lively business. Each town has one or more coyotes or polleros who will take anywhere from four to as many as twenty or thirty workers across the Rio Grande. His brother went up in a small group of four, and had to pay $2,500 dollars to the coyote, plus his bus fare across Mexico up to the border.
"Dollars" is in italics because that is a fortune for people around here who work only occasionally and then in back-breaking agricultural or construction jobs that most often pay as little as $80 a week. When workers start their jobs in the U.S. they gradually pay off their coyote fees. In fact, it was Félix's former employer, a subcontractor with a construction company, who called him and his brothers three weeks ago and offered them jobs.
Despite the billions spent by the U.S. in personnel and high-tech surveillance gadgetry along the border, crossing the Rio Grande and getting into Texas still sounds almost like a B-grade adventure movie. On the Mexican side, entrepreneurs sell rides to the other side on horses, boats or on homemade contraptions. Unless flooded, the river is a modest stream. Once on land, the coyote takes his clients across open fields, and sometimes private land, to a meeting point along a road where they get picked up by a smuggler and taken to their final destination.
The coyote who took Félix' older brother is still doing good business though there are reports of heightened security. For example, closed-circuit cameras now are mounted on the windmills used for pumping water that illegal immigrants drink. Despite this and other obstacles, his brother made the trip across the northern third of Mexico and to Dallas in a little more than a week.
Still, it must be a wrenching decision to leave one's family and children and undertake a trek north whose outcome is anything for certain. It also reflects the continuing desperation of many Mexican workers untouched by the apparent prosperity gushing around them.
About forty-five minutes from us an enormous and spectacular shopping center—the "Antea Lifestyle Center" as the advertising proclaims—recently opened and includes high-end retailers such as Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Crate and Barrel plus a huge Palacio de Hierro, Mexico's equivalent of Neiman Marcus. New housing subdivisions surround the shopping center clear out to the horizon.
What feeds this retail frenzy is presumably the appearance of a dozen industrial parks in nearby Querétaro, a booming city of about a million, offering well paying jobs in aeronautics and other sophisticated industries. On the other side of San Miguel several automobile assembly plants also have sprouted around the boom town of León.
In the middle of all this, in San Miguel's rural areas, populated by people like Félix and his family, despair persists. Félix, is 26 years old and is smart, enterprising and hard-working but has only a sixth-grade education which affords him some basic math and reading abilities, but marginal writing and spelling skills. The brother now in Dallas has a second-grade education and is functionally illiterate, as are Félix' two sisters and another brother. The brother who left for the U.S. yesterday has only a fifth-grade education.
As much as we respect Félix abilities, enterprise and basic decency, his prospects for benefiting Mexico's new prosperity are dim. For his siblings the chances are even dimmer, closer to zero. Even a job pumping gas at Pemex, Mexico's oil monopoly, requires a ninth-grade education plus and working writing and math skills. Neither Félix nor his siblings need apply.
The brother now in Dallas has seven children and in Mexico managed to land only occasional jobs in construction. Two of his teenage boys work in agriculture jobs paying the rough equivalent of $80 to $90 dollars a week. When he left, according to Félix, his brother was mired in debt acquired trying to keep his family afloat and an ancient pick-up running.
Now in Dallas, he is reportedly earning $11 dollars an hour, bolting and soldering together prefabricated steel structures which are then refinished into retail stores. When his job ends in Dallas, he's headed to Louisiana for more construction work. How long he will remain the U.S. is still unclear but given his prospects back in Mexico, I suspect it will be a long while.
On Monday morning, at 8:30 sharp, Félix shuffled to our kitchen door, clearly hung over. He told me couldn't work because he "had gone overboard with the cervezas" over the weekend. I didn't ask what he was celebrating and thanked him for being honest about his condition, instead of feigning some ailment, and sent him home.
On Tuesday, as we were about to leave in the car, Félix tapped the window. When I rolled it down he was fully recovered and visibly happy: His brother had made it to Dallas safely.